THE BLOG
12/27/2011 09:06 am ET Updated Feb 26, 2012

The Greatest American Artist of the Past 50 Years: Woody Allen?

An annual Washington rite will be televised tonight. The Kennedy Center Honors will be on CBS and -- for the 34th straight year -- Woody Allen will not be among those honored. Yet, Public Broadcasting's recent broadcast of a two-part biography on Woody Allen (Woody Allen: A Documentary) and the encomiums of Chris Rock, Larry David, and many others raises an interesting question:

Is Woody Allen the greatest American artist of the past 50 years?

Don't think so? Let's consider the following criteria:

• Most Original -- Who was the biggest breakthrough from what preceded him?
• Most Superlative -- Whose works are considered paramount?
• Most Productive -- Who was most prolific?
• Most Versatile -- Who displayed the widest range of talent?

1. Most Original. Highly subjective, of course. In my opinion, Bob Dylan was the most original. Folk music was never the same. No one before -- or since -- has been able to generate the imagery that Dylan produced in song after song after song. He was so different than anything that had gone before him and his best work is so lasting.

There are any number of other artists who produced breakthroughs, of course. (See the lists at the end of this article.) They range from Van Cliburn to Norman Lear.

But Woody Allen was no slouch. While other comics had mined the "loser" persona, Allen brought to both his stand up and movie characters a form of articulate neurosis that was decidedly new and different.

2. Most Superlative. Whose production was at the very top?

Not surprisingly, this overlaps considerably with the last category, with the additions of a couple of artists who weren't "breakthroughs" but who work was at the peak of their craft (Neil Simon, Francis Ford Coppola). But Allen's absolutely compares:

Annie Hall is considered perhaps the greatest comedy of all time. Certainly in the top 5. And some critics consider Manhattan to be superior.

Or Crimes and Misdemeanors. (Working out the existence of God in a Hollywood movie? OK, an independent Hollywood movie, but still...)

And his string of 1970s comedies:

Take the Money and Run
Bananas
Play It Again, Sam
Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex
Sleeper
Love and Death

Followed by Annie Hall and Manhattan. Who else had a run like this? Not the Marx Brothers. Not Abbott and Costello. Not Bob Hope. Not even Chaplin.

And that doesn't even include later films such as Zelig or Hannah and Her Sisters and another 10 impressive, if not historic, films.

3. Most Productive. My standard is over 35 post-1960 years of truly productive work. Who was this productive?

I've excluded a number of artists who did some of their best work around 1960 and later, but the bulk of their careers were earlier (Billy Wilder, Julie Styne, Marlon Brando.). The closest call is Sinatra. He did great work starting in the late 1950s, but did he do enough of it? He was still performing in the 1990s but should one consider his Duets albums truly "productive." Otherwise, his last new album was in 1979.

Richard Pryor is also a tough decision -- breaking through in the mid-1960s, but his career was essentially over by 1991.

Here Dylan falters. His fertile period was roughly 15 years (1962-1975), perhaps a bit longer if you want to include the three albums that followed his last universally acclaimed album, Blood on the Tracks. Starting in the mid-80s, an increasing number of the songs on Dylan's albums either didn't have words or lyrics by Dylan -- or weren't Dylan songs at all. He did have a bit of a comeback with two popular albums, Modern Times and Together in Life, released in 2006 and 2009.

And Dylan appears typical in that few artists' works (Shakespeare, Picasso, Sinatra) are able to remain compelling beyond their first 15-20 years. They may continue to perform, but their later work seems almost stale, while their original work is revered. (If Picasso and Sinatra are any indication, all artists should look to recreate themselves mid-career.)

But when it comes to production, there is no one like Woody Allen. Starting with his first stand up in Greenwich Village in 1961 (he wrote for The Sid Caesar Show even earlier), he has written and directed 42 films over the past 42 years, from Take the Money and Run in 1969 through Midnight in Paris this year. He's starred in about all but 15 of them and took pure acting roles in another 8 that he didn't write or direct.

The only other people on all three lists are Stephen Sondheim and Phillip Roth. Sondheim (1955 lyrics to West Side Story/1994 words and music to Assassins) --although Sondheim has produced the lyrics and or music for about 15 shows while Allen has written and /or directed nearly 40 films, another 40 New Yorker and other comic pieces and hours of stand-up.

Roth's career is also approaching 50 years and he is pretty prolific. Portnoy's Complaint was certainly a breakthrough. The Zuckerman series is heralded by critics.

4. Most Versatile. Finally, breadth of talent; how multi-faceted one is. If the test were not being superior in one art-form, but mastering a number of the performing arts, there are a number of performers who both sing and act -- and who aren't included on the list. To make the first part of the list, you need to be able to perform -- and write or direct or compose:

Mike Nichols
Bill Cosby
Steve Martin
Jackie Gleason

Then there are the musicians. One issue is whether you would give them credit for lyrics and music (a Cole Porter who did both vs. a Richard Rodgers who only composed). But we need more than that here. We need words, lyrics, and performance:

Willie Nelson
Chuck Berry
Paul Simon
Billy Joel
Bob Dylan

But really, has there ever been an artist more multi-talented than Woody Allen? Not only did Allen do stand up and write numerous New Yorker pieces (OK, so did Steve Martin), but he wrote and directed and starred in a movie nearly every year -- for 30-plus years. Then he wrote and directed for another 10.

Who else has done this? Not Martin. Not Scorsese or Spielberg.

So, Woody Allen is the most prolific and multi-talented American artist of the past 50 years as well as representing a comedic breakthrough and creating a number of the greatest American movies of all time.

Now I acknowledge that perhaps every criterion should not be treated equally.Clearly, we would not recognize someone for being prolific if their work sucked.

I'm asking: if there is a greater American artist over the past 5 decades than Woody Allen, who? Perhaps you believe that a Dylan or a Sondheim were so original that they trump Allen?? Please comment below.

Now, I acknowledge, selecting Allen as the greatest recent American artist runs against one of his principles: that artists shouldn't compete with each other. It's why he's never picked up any of the Oscars that he has won. Presumably it's why he's never received the Mark Twain Award or, yes, the Kennedy Center Award for Performing Artists or as they would require him to show up.
So forgive me, Woody, for ranking you this way. After all, you don't have to show up here.

Finally, the documentary did reveal one thing about this great artist that is... well... sad.

He doesn't appreciate his own talent.

As the show detailed, Woody wants to be Ingmar Bergman. There's only one problem -- Woody doesn't write or direct drama superlatively. Some might even question whether he does them adequately.

His first attempt, Interiors in the 1970s, was unsuccessful. Just try to watch September or Another Woman from the 1980s. I dare you to make it to the end of either.

But perhaps the saddest moment of the documentary artistically was when Allen said that he had wanted Crimes and Misdemeanors, a fusion of drama and humor, to only focus on the Martin Landau tragedy and not the Alan Alda/Woody Allen comedy.

As noted above, I consider Crimes to be one of the great Hollywood movies. But it is the Alda/Allen plot that makes the movie. If the movie had focused only on the Landau character, it almost certainly would not have worked and been one more failed Allen attempt.

Should we adjust Allen's position for his dramatic failures? No, Dylan and the others have had plenty of failures as well. We want our artists to risk and fail.

But we also want them to appreciate their talent.

So Allen deserves to be ranked as the greatest American artist of the past 50 years.

And, yes, comparing artists across different disciplines, isn't scientific. Of course.

But there is a point: Comedy is just as special a talent as drama. It is after all, serious in its own way.

That Allen can't recognize this is something that Bergman would appreciate -- and cinematize far better than Woody ever could.

Does that make Allen's achievements even more remarkable? Again, that's for you to decide. I think we can all agree, though, regardless, his achievements are remarkable enough.

Here are the lists. They are not intended to be exhaustive. What's your opinion?

Most Original:

Van Cliburn
Martha Graham
Chuck Berry
Edward Albee
Stephen Sondheim
Martin Scorsese
Brian Wilson
Steve Martin
Frank Sinatra (in his 2nd career)
Andy Warhol
Robert Motherwell
Joseph Heller
Phillip Roth
David Mamet
Roy Lichtenstein
Frank Stella
Lenny Bruce
Richard Pryor
Bill Cosby
Jerry Lewis
Elvis Presley
Jonathan Winters
Norman Lear
Woody Allen

Most Superlative:

Bob Dylan
Martha Graham
Merce Cunningham
Frank Sinatra
Jackie Gleason
Van Cliburn
Chuck Berry
Edward Albee
Neil Simon
Stephen Sondheim
Martin Scorsese
Brian Wilson
Steve Martin
Frank Sinatra
Andy Warhol
Robert Motherwell
Joseph Heller
Phillip Roth
David Mamet
Roy Lichtenstein
Frank Stella
Steven Spielberg
Lenny Bruce
Richard Pryor
Bill Cosby
Smokey Robinson
Elvis Presley
Francis Ford Coppola
Barbra Streisand
Jack Nicholson
Meryl Streep
Norman Lear
Ella Fitzgerald
Michael Jackson
Woody Allen

Most Productive

Mike Nichols
Paul Simon
Quincy Jones
Willie Nelson
Bill Cosby
Jacques d'Amboise
Johnny Carson
George Solti
Stephen Sondheim
Lionel Hampton
Mstislav Rostropovich
Paul Taylor
Dizzy Gillespie
Alvin Ailey
Ray Charles
Merce Cunningham
Roy Lichtenstein
John Updike
Phillip Roth
Kurt Vonnegut
Neil Simon
Mel Brooks
Barbra Streisand
Ella Fitzgerald
Jack Nicholson
Woody Allen

Most Versatile

Mike Nichols
Bill Cosby
Steve Martin
Jackie Gleason
Willie Nelson
Chuck Berry
Paul Simon
Billy Joel
Bob Dylan
Michael Jackson
Mel Brooks
Woody Allen